Sunday, April 23, 2006

Yet more new Swedish noir in translation

Borkmann's Point by Håkan Nesser is the newest of the current crop of Swedish crime novels to reach the U.S. market. But Nesser's novel is a bit different from the others. The setting is not Sweden, not exactly anyway. The beat of Detective Van Veeteren, Nesser's central character, is an unnamed European country that is something like the Netherlands, or perhaps coastal Denmark. Or maybe coastal Sweden. In a way, Nesser has staked out the territory of "new Europe" for his detective, giving himself considerable leeway in controlling the setting (but losing the anchor of a real city, one of the things I go to international noir fiction for).
Nesser's novel is a puzzle, solved in the "least likely suspect" mode, perhaps more a straight mystery than noir fiction. But the inability of citizens to rely on the justice system for justice, a dark sensibility, and the oddly disorienting fictional world bring the novel close enough to noir to be considered here. The narrative has considerable drive, though the investigation is not very systematic, as police procedurals go. Van Veeteren's self confidence echoes (distantly, fortunately) that of Poirot. On the other hand, the family problems of several of the characters give a "reality effect" in amassing detail surrounding the characters' lives. And the progression of murders, and of the detectives' efforts to catch up with the murderer, are the primary sources of that narrative drive. To me, this novel is not quite as interesting as Eriksson's Princess of Burundi, but he avoids what I see as a flaw in the Wallander books--a tendency to reach for global conspiracies in the resolution of local crimes. And it's fascinating to see Nesser build up a circumstantial, believable world from scratch. Plus the explanation of the book's title is interesting and completely unexpected...
Synopsis: A drinker is stalked and murdered, with an axe, in the woods on his way home from a bar. Obviously this is not the first novel in this series, becuase there is some unfinished business between the star detective, Inspector Van Veeteren, and his son, who is on parole and the two are at the beach together. No more explanation is offered, since the detective is immediately called away to the nearby town of Kaalbringen to deal with the axe murder. In Kaalbringen he meets the police chief, Detective Chief Inspector Bausen, and detective Beate Moerk, plus several other less well delineated detectives (Moerk and Munster both occupy the narrator's attention nearly as much as does Van Veeteren--Moerk is in fact a fully realized character, at least in the first half of the novel). Eventually, they're joined by Van Veeteren's trusted lieutenant, detective Munster. The two victims, a business man and a vagrant, seem to have nothing in common. Then another man is discovered when his girlfriend returns to their apartment--the axe is still buried in his back. The twists and turns from there on follow a familiar pattern, and there is what I consider to be a flaw in the point of view--the killer speaks, giving the reader details of his motivation, and the character who will eventually be revealed to be the killer also speaks, separately and in the voice of his "daytime" character so to speak, with no mention of the motivating compulsion that we know from the killer's monologues. So there is a blatant attempt to fool the reader, and these two voices are not really reconciled in the conclusion.